While funding is no doubt vital to aiding bus recovery, messaging is essential too, writes Zemo Partnership’s Dan Hayes

Grant Shapps recently announced a six-month extension to the Bus Recovery Grant (BRG), part of a new £150m funding package for operators and local authorities. Mr Shapps added the funding “will ensure millions of us can continue to use vital public transport services”.

While additional funding will come as welcome relief to operators, avoiding service cuts, the key to ensuring passengers return to using bus services isn’t necessarily just a question of money.

Getting the word out

In March 2020, Boris Johnson announced a lockdown in response to COVID-19, saying “now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact and travel”, adding everyone should “stay at home”.

Restrictions on all sectors of the economy and repeated guidance against using public transport, meant bus patronage slumped dramatically. Bus usage had fallen to 17% in London, and 12% in the rest of England.

With the first wave subsiding, the government announced a plan for lifting restrictions, noting that “people should return to the workplace, but avoid public transport”. Further tiered restrictions then followed towards the end of 2020, culminating in two further lockdowns.

After a slight recovery during 2020, patronage fell again to around 30% across England as the nation entered its third lockdown in January 2021.

In February 2021, government published a roadmap to ease restrictions across England, outlining a route back to a more normal way of life.

Towards the end of 2021, emerging COVID-19 variants forced the government to enact Plan B restrictions in England. Under the new plan, those who could were once again advised to work from home.

It was not until February 2022 that the Prime Minister announced the removal of all remaining restrictions in the Living with COVID-19 strategy, seen as the permanent route out of the pandemic.

Nowhere in the document is public transport let alone buses mentioned in any way.

Review of NBS needed?

As of February 2022, patronage stood at 75% in London, and 77% elsewhere according to the latest Department for Transport transport-use statistics, still a long way short of prepandemic levels. Despite the collapse in ridership, operators have maintained services throughout, with the help of over £2bn in government support to date.

While funding is no doubt vital to aiding bus recovery, there has still yet to be clear messaging from government about the safety of using public transport to undo the repeated and now embedded guidance given throughout the pandemic about the need to avoid using it.

The National Bus Strategy (NBS) was published based on the historic decline in bus patronage pre-pandemic. This combined with a shift in working patterns post-pandemic, will leave operators requiring continued financial support, unless passengers are actively encouraged to return to using the bus.

A review of the NBS postpandemic would be productive following the submission of Bus Service Improvement Plans at the end of this month.

The focus must be on reassuring the public, done by promoting mitigation measures and highlighting the negligible prevalence of COVID-19 on public transport networks as documented in numerous scientific reports.

This messaging clearly aligns with wider long-term transport goals which require a modal shift away from private cars to public transport to achieve a net-zero transport system by 2050.